An extraordinary international exhibit is touring Minnesota this month: Lawyers without Rights. Jewish Lawyers in Germany Under the Third Reich. The display was created by the German and American Bar Associations and was brought here as an outreach initiative of the Federal District Court of Minnesota. The exhibit reflects a time in Germany when individual rights and the rule of law were systematically disregarded.
My own grandfather, Walter Mieses, was one of the many lawyers whose destiny was tied to the fate of democracy. He was born in Leipzig in 1900. At the age of 28 he became the youngest judge in the state of Saxony, serving at the Regional Court in Leipzig.
In 1929 he resigned his position in the civil service and became a private attorney, representing clients before the Court of Appeals of the State of Saxony, in Dresden. In April 1933, the National Socialist decree that refused all Jewish judges, public prosecutors, and lawyers access to the courts brought his brilliant career to a halt. In the same year he emigrated to Buenos Aires (Argentina).
Walter Mieses never practiced law again. But his passion for the legal profession and his profound sense of justice and fairness, led him to become a frequent contributor to Argentina’s immigrant and national newspapers, writing articles on civil and criminal law, international affairs, and Jewish-German relations. He died of injuries suffered in a bus accident in Buenos Aires in 1967.
I never met my grandfather but I grew up hearing stories about Opa Walter. Now, thanks to this important effort of Minnesota’s legal community, his story and that of many other Jewish German lawyers, judges and prosecutors will become known to a broad audience. For that I am personally grateful.
Some lawyers, like my grandfather, were able to escape Nazi-Germany to rebuild their lives in another country. But too many of his colleagues, like millions of others, did not escape. Their fate was incarceration and murder.
This exhibit pays homage to all these lawyers by teaching an important lesson: the rule of law is as fragile as glass and its destruction is always the prelude of atrocities.
Alejandro Baer is the Stephen Feinstein Chair and Director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. He joined the University of Minnesota in 2012 and is an Associate Professor of Sociology.